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Psychologism, Sensibilism, and Kant's Debt to Hume
Southwest Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy, University of New Mexico (2010)
  • Brian Chance, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

There is a familiar story about Kant's relationship to Hume. According to it, Hume‘s account of causation presented Kant with a challenge. Hume denied the a priori origin of the concept of cause and so the a priori justification of all causal judgments. And Kant responded to a generalized version of these denials in the Metaphysical and Transcendental Deductions of the first Critique by determining the number and establishing the objective validity of the pure concepts of the understanding. The familiar story thus makes Hume's philosophy into a cautionary tale for Kant, one whose main service to was demonstrate the urgency of providing the arguments of the Transcendental Analytic and whose moral is that the use of exclusively empirical principles to explain human cognition leads invariably to skepticism. Aspects of this story are as old as the Critique itself. It was promulgated by the first generation of German philosophers writing in Kant's wake. And it quickly found its way into historical treatments of philosophy in the second half of the eighteenth-century.

But there is also a second story, not nearly as familiar but equally old and equally important. According to it, Kant and Hume have much more in common than their well-known disagreement over the status of causal judgments would suggest. Each is critical of rationalist attempts to cognize supersensible objects such as God and the soul, and each develops his account of cognition, in part, to demonstrate the futility of these attempts. J. G. Hamann recognized this affinity with Hume in 1781 when he wrote to Herder that Kant's critique of speculative theology had earned him the title of a 'Prussian Hume'. And nearly two hundred years later, it was Hamann's comment that inspired Lewis White Beck to argue that Hume might well be thought of as a 'Scottish Kant'. More recently, Manfred Kuehn, Gary Hatfield, and Eric Watkins have each expanded on Hamann's suggestion, arguing that Kant viewed Hume's philosophy as a forerunner to his own critique of metaphysics.

One story thus emphasizes Kant‘s differences with Hume and recognizes few if any affinities, while the other recognizes deep affinities and insists that they are at least as important as the differences. In this paper, I shall defend a version of the second story. But I begin by raising doubts about the most recent and radical version of it, articulated by Wayne Waxman. Like Hamann and others, Waxman emphasizes that demonstrating the limitations of rationalist accounts of cognition (including rationalist views about cognition of supersensible objects) is important to both Kant and Hume. But on his view, the affinities between Kant and Hume run even deeper. For it is only Hume‘s failure to consider the possibility of a priori sensible intuition that Waxman believes kept Hume from developing two views we today regard as quintessentially Kantian: transcendental idealism and a synthetic a priori account of causal and mathematical judgments. Thus, on Waxman's view, it is Kant's use of the a priori intuitions of space and time in his account of cognition that has created the illusion of radical discontinuity between Kant and Hume where there is in fact great and hitherto unnoticed continuity.

To be sure, Kant's affinities with Hume have been neglected. But I believe Waxman‘s reading of them should be resisted. As I discuss in section one, this reading relies crucially on claims about Hume‘s influence on Kant and, conversely, Kant's debt to Hume. But Waxman's account of this influence is, I believe, difficult (if not impossible) to reconcile with many of the central views Kant wants to defend the Critique. In section two, I discuss these views and the difficulties with reconciling them with Waxman's claim that the core of Kant's debt to Hume lies in his adoption of what Waxman calls sensibilism and psychologism.

Despite the difficulties with Waxman's view, we should not ignore the numerous passages in which Kant credits Hume with having both anticipated and influenced his views in the Critique. And in section three, I introduce my own, more modest proposal regarding Kant's debt to Hume. In section four, I then conclude with some remarks about why this debt is the modest one I have described. As I hope to show in these last two sections, Kant credited Hume with being the first to argue that an analysis of the mind and the sources of its representations can yield strong arguments against rationalist claims to cognition of supersensible objects and regarded this analysis as important (albeit a fundamentally flawed) forerunner of his arguments in the Critique.

Publication Date
February 27, 2010
Citation Information
Brian Chance. "Psychologism, Sensibilism, and Kant's Debt to Hume" Southwest Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy, University of New Mexico (2010)
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